NASA's Flight Plan Gets Small Course Corrections

The Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station

This illustration depicts the Dragon — a spacecraft being developed for NASA by the private company SpaceX — docking at the International Space Station. The Dragon spacecraft received a $1.6 billion contract to resupply the space station when the space shuttle retires. NASA hide caption

itoggle caption NASA

President Obama took one small step backward Thursday afternoon, announcing subtle changes to his new space strategy while also defending his approach during a speech at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The revised proposal would revive one scaled-down component of the space agency's six-year-old Constellation program, a successor to the space shuttle that the president originally proposed scrapping in February.

But the strategy shift is far from an abort scenario. Many workers at the U.S. space port on Florida's Cape Canaveral would still lose their jobs after the shuttle's long-planned retirement later this year. And key elements of the NASA strategy the White House first outlined in February remain in place.

Here's what the new course the president laid out would mean for some NASA programs and constituencies:

The Shuttle: This week marks the 29th anniversary of shuttle flights. And when Discovery returns from its current mission, there are only three more flights scheduled: an Atlantis mission in May, an Endeavour flight in July, and then one last trip to orbit for Discovery in September.

The plan to retire the shuttle fleet was put in motion by President George W. Bush in 2004 to help pay for an ambitious proposal to build a new spacecraft and return U.S. astronauts to the moon. After years of scaling back, it's not clear whether the contractors NASA depends on to maintain its shuttles could scramble to keep the fleet flying at this point.

The Obama administration has proposed a little extra money for the next fiscal year to give NASA some wiggle room, in case weather or technical delays affect the current schedule. And if all goes as planned, some shuttle advocates hope that money could be used instead for an extra mission. Beyond that, NASA's search is on for new homes where its surviving three orbiters can begin their new careers as museum pieces. (Discovery is already promised to the National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.)

The Constellation Program: NASA's original idea for replacing the shuttle was a new family of rockets and spacecraft designed not only to carry astronauts back and forth to Earth orbit, but to eventually transport human explorers to the moon and beyond.

An advisory panel that looked into the future of human spaceflight found that the Constellation program had long been underfunded and behind schedule to meet any of its goals. Based on those findings, the administration proposed a budget that would pull the plug on the program, after six years and more than $9 billion of development.

With Thursday's announcement, Obama ordered NASA to revive one component: the four-person Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, reinvented as an on-call rescue vehicle for orbiting space crews. While far from the glamorous missions for which Orion was conceived, Obama said the scaled-down rescue vehicle could still establish a "technological foundation" for future spacecraft that will be needed for future space missions.

The Space Station: The Obama administration would extend the life of the International Space Station by at least five years to 2020. The extra time would be significant since the station has only been able to accommodate a full-size, full-time crew of six for less than a year. Keeping the orbiting outpost open would provide a laboratory for preparing for long-duration missions further from home.

As of October, the station will have been continuously occupied by at least two people for a decade. The challenge in the station's second decade of operations will be getting crews to and from it. After the shuttle, NASA and its international partners will be dependent on the small three-person Russian Soyuz spacecraft — with a round-trip ticket costing passengers more than $50 million a pop.

Private Space Taxis: Having canceled Constellation, the Obama administration's primary focus is to help start a new industry — corporate spacecraft builders that would sell transportation services instead of vehicles to NASA and its partners.

The administration says relying on the private sector will give the country a shuttle replacement a year or two sooner than the Constellation program would have been ready to fly and offer redundancy.

One likely private sector contender is Space Exploration Technologies. Under a contract from NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, SpaceX already is developing a launcher and a reusable spacecraft designed to help resupply the space station starting next year. Adapting its cargo hauler, called Dragon, to carry as many as a half-dozen astronauts is next on the company's agenda.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk — the billionaire online entrepreneur behind the PayPal e-commerce system — is understandably enthusiastic about the president's focus on new, commercially developed spacecraft. "The new plan is to harness our nation's unparalleled system of free enterprise (as we have done in all other modes of transport), to create far more reliable and affordable rockets," he said in a statement Thursday.

Musk also said turning over routine orbital missions to the private sector would "free up the NASA resources necessary to develop interplanetary transport technologies."

Heavy-Lift Launcher: Interplanetary missions and other forms of deep-space exploration would require rockets that could provide a much bigger boost than the family of Falcon rockets Musk's company is developing. So Obama proposed Thursday to invest $3.1 billion in designing a new heavy-lift launch vehicle by 2015.

The president's previous plan was far murkier on the timing for development of such a rocket, which would replace Constellation's Ares V lifter. The administration says Obama's promise to select a design for a heavy-lift launch vehicle in five years means major work on the rocket would begin as much as two years sooner than if Constellation wasn't canceled.

Return To The Moon: Obama was dismissive of the Constellation program's emphasis on getting astronauts back to the moon by the end of this decade. "We've been there before," he said.

Instead, he called for NASA to focus on exploring more far-flung destinations, where no one has gone before. Near-Earth asteroids are one possible destination. Another are the "Lagrange points" — areas of space balanced between the Earth and the moon that could serve as gravitational islands for long-term research and even potential fueling depots.

Obama did not commit to specific deadlines, but said he thought some of those missions could be mounted by the mid-2020s, with a Mars landing at some point later. "And I expect to be around to see it," the 48-year-old president added.

The Budget: Back on Planet Earth, all of this will need the approval of NASA's check writers in Congress. And much of Thursday's announcement was geared to winning over Capitol Hill skeptics, especially those whose constituents have ties to NASA and its national network of contractors.

In many ways the revisions are designed to serve as a political deflector shield for the White House space strategy. The original plan has been under fire from NASA workers, space program advocates and even some high-profile former Apollo astronauts. The critics described the original plan as a mission to nowhere that would effectively dismantle the U.S. manned space capability, leaving U.S. astronauts without their own ride for the first time since the gap between the final Apollo flight in 1975 and the first space shuttle flight in 1981.

Obama emphasized that his plan would increase NASA's budget by $6 billion over five years, even while he was proposing to hold down other discretionary spending programs in the federal budget. He described major investments in the Kennedy Space Center and forecasted adding 2,500 jobs to Florida's "Space Coast" by 2012.

The administration estimates that cultivating private-sector space launchers will create 10,000 new jobs across the country over the next five years, while building an Orion-based rescue ship will preserve critical jobs for federal contractors in Colorado, Texas and Florida.

Obama said the country's investments in space exploration over the past five decades have paid off big "for pennies on the dollar." If Congress agrees, the lawmakers' mission will be to discover the dollars to pay for the president's vision.

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